Thunder Butte

November 03, 2005

The Difficult 1930's

South Dakota was stricken hard by drought during the 1930’s. Harold Breimyer, in his book, “Over-fulfilled Expectations: a Life and an Era in Rural America,” recounts doing survey work in Ziebach County in 1938. According to Breimyer, “Ziebach County in 1938 was barren. Only a handful of homesteaders was still to be found.” Among them were the Crowleys, who had settled near Thunder Butte in 1913.

Breimyer says, “They [the homesteaders] had taken up their 160 acres before World War I. A few years of good crops and wartime high prices had offered a false hope that was extinguished with all the tragedy that James Michener describes in Centennial.” Michener’s book, “Centennial,” is a tribute to the West and all of the dramatic hopes and conflicts spurred by generations of fur trappers, cowboys, homesteaders, ranchers, and gold seekers.

In many ways, Ziebach County and the area around Thunder Butte were typical of the West that Michener described. French fur trappers passed through the country beginning in the 1650’s, to be followed by successive waves of Americans seeking their fortune as explorers, ranchers, and homesteaders in the dry lands of the West.

During the 1930’s, according to Breimyer, “South Dakota may have suffered more than any of the (then) forty-eight states from depression and dust-storm drought.” Often, when people think of the 1930’s droughts and the migrations they caused, they think of the poor sod farmers from Oklahoma who picked up and moved west. Few people probably know that while Oklahoma lost 2.5 percent of its population during the 1930’s—almost 60,000 people—according to T.H. Watkins, writing in “The Hungry Years,” South Dakota lost seven percent of its inhabitants, and just short of 50,000 people. Ziebach County was among the hardest hit areas—losing almost 30 percent of its population during the 1930’s. These numbers understate, though, the masses of people—300,000 to 400,000 according to some estimates—from around the country who were on the move, looking for jobs, better land, or a new place to put down roots.

Soon after 1940, most of the Crowleys gave up the toil of ranch life near Thunder Butte and moved to California. Tom Crowley stayed behind for awhile, until his wife and the rest of the family had gotten settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Only Neal Crowley remained and prospered for years afterward in the town of Faith, not very distant from the family’s former home.
Mike Crowley Thursday, November 03, 2005


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